“Spot!” Wherever that mutt had gone, he was either out of earshot or ignoring him. “Dammit! Spotttt!” This wasn’t good. They were supposed to be partners. Where had that mutt run off to? If he came home without that lousy dog, Katie would have a fit. And if Katie had a fit, Lauren wouldn’t–it was too much to think about. “S P O T T T!”
The winter air was thick and silent. He was only about five miles from Central, and Crosshair’s prediction had been correct. The area was empty except for the occasional corpse on the side of the street. Or in the middle of the street. Zack didn’t seem to care where he froze or what position he took when he did it. Sometimes he or she or it was face-down in the snowbank. It didn’t matter. Grab a wrist, twist, and club. If he didn’t think of them as former people, he didn’t even squint.
His squad had walked to the intersection of Seeley and Salt Springs Roads. This was an area of the city that had held against the encroachment of crack from the west, but failed to hold back against Zack. One mile to his east was the site of the most murders in the city, but all around him was university wealth. His team had spread out, hunting for Z’s. This would be valuable real estate that would yield some bounty once the gatherers were able to move in. That didn’t matter right now, though. He had to find that dog or Katie would be furious.
Like the other dogs around the zone, and like generations of dogs stretching back to the caves, Spot just sort of appeared one day and forgot to leave. He joined the squad and earned his keep, especially in the winter. His nose had exposed at least a dozen hidden Z’s in the snowbanks that day alone. Normally, he stuck near a member while on patrol and at Central. One time when Spot had followed him home, his step-adopted-foster daughter just happened to fall in love with the dog and named it in spite of Lauren’s and his suggestion. She picked Spot, and she was three. That was enough. The rest of the squad liked the name, so it had stuck.
Unfortunately his previous orders to have Spot go retrieve a six pack had gone unanswered. Maybe he’d finally found some. Man, a beer would be nice and cold right now. He could feel it go all the way down his throat, burning his insides. It was warm, too warm. He needed to just take off his gloves and hat and cool down a bit. And have some more beer. He should get this back to Lauren. She’d love it. For once, he’d get Christmas right.
His body twitched twice. He heaved a large sigh. Five seconds passed and a massive tremor stiffened his body. His limbs relaxed.
He opened his eyes and saw stars. Stars? Oh no. He was in the snow. It was night. He was alone and freezing to death.
He stood up to scream. The silence protocols were suspended during the winter because the temperature kept Zack frozen. “Horse? Axe?” Nothing. “Raygun?” Nothing at all. “Raygun? You guys out there? Hello?”
There was nothing at all. Except–was that a moan? No. It couldn’t have been. Zack couldn’t have been waking up. Zack had to go to sleep so that the Santa Squad could bring all the naughty Z’s a ZED to the head. Huh? Did that make any sense at all? Gotta move. Down the hill. North to home. Christmas is in two days. One foot up. Push. Go.
Clipboard counted to three and knew why they were late. “What happened?”
Raygun shook his head. “We tried. We couldn’t find him. He was just gone. We’d been working 2×2 with twenty-minute check ins. An hour before deadline, he didn’t check in with Axe. We tried looking for him. We stayed out a half-hour past. We tried, Clipboard.”
Clipboard nodded. “I’m sorry.” He knew they would be in danger from violating a Corpse Corps protocol. There was no excuse ever for being out after dark. But Slater didn’t need to know about it this time. “I’ll dispatch three teams that way in the morning.” He looked down at the puddle by his right foot and saw the light shimmering underneath. “Looks like it’s warming up a bit. That may help.” He didn’t mention that the warming weather would help reanimate Zack or that tomorrow would be too late. They knew, but they just grunted and trudged through the gate and back to check their weapons.
He was two hundred feet from Erie Blvd. when he stopped and looked back up the hill. Should he find some shelter and hunker down for the night? His legs and brain outvoted his heart and he turned to his right, back to the north. It took four steps before he realized what he had seen.
Yes, of course. He would go back. Even in the snow, a mountain bike would triple his speed home. He hoisted himself up through the hole in the window and stepped clear of the snow that had drifted inside. A scan around the room dismayed him. Clearly he wasn’t the first person to think of helping himself to a new bicycle. Corpse Corps does not loot, he said to himself. He wasn’t looting, though. He was just borrowing and would deal with the consequences if and when he made it home. Besides, looting usually meant taking something you wanted, like televisions or booze–and he wouldn’t have touched any of these bikes before the crash.
The only bike left intact in the shop was a green tandem Canondale. The rest was junk that would wait forever for its owner to file an insurance claim. Would that claim ever get filed? Did insurance companies cover zombie damage? Somehow he doubted it. He hefted the frame onto his shoulder and went to the door. It was ajar. Maybe that’s why Corpse Corps didn’t loot. He’d been so busy shopping that he’d forgotten his basic defense training.
Out into the parking lot. This ought to be easy. Just like riding a bike. He pushed down on the pedals and spun out in the slush. He shifted into a higher gear to increase the resistance a bit. Push push push–crap. He jerked the wheel hard to the left to avoid the arm that shot out of the snowbank on the right side of the road. The slush was a blessing and a curse, as it padded his fall, but kept him sliding down the hill, away from the bike. He twisted to keep his head out of the snow. As he slid fifteen feet down the steep hill on Seeley, the bike stayed in place. He saw the hand gripping the rear wheel from the snowbank while the front wheel spun lazily. He scrambled to his feet, scrambling for traction as he headed back up the hill. Reaching for his ZED., he smashed furiously at the snowbank, hoping he hit brain. Maybe it was a good thing he was alone. If they saw him beating a snowbank senseless, his squad mates never would have let him hear the end of it.
Because of the rigor mortis and the cold, the Z’s hand never relaxed its grip on the wheel. He had to do that himself. He pulled the arm out of the snowbank. One-hundred and sixty pounds of twenty-something male came along with it. Out of habit, he patted the body down. In the breast pocket, he felt a lump. Half a pack of Marlboros and a lighter. It never failed with Zack. They would lose their brains, lose their guts, and their souls, but they never, ever left their cigarettes behind. He didn’t mind. Back in the Zone, the cigarette trade made up half the economy.
He got on the bike and started down Seeley toward the Boulevard. He didn’t pedal and he didn’t brake: the hill took care of the speed, and the brake would simply make him skid. Halfway down, the wind started to bite into his wet legs and bare face. He realized his mistake. He wouldn’t be able to stop before the rows of cars on Erie. He’d have to hot dog it on a tandem bike in six inches of slush. He squeezed past the first row of cars and slammed into the front fender of a Buick Skylark. He went over the handlebars and landed on his back, winded. At least the hood of the car had broken his fall. Unfortunately, the slam had awakened the Z’s inside. They moved slowly because of the cold, but he moved slowly from having the wind knocked out of him. The scene unfolded like a movie run at slow speed. He knew he couldn’t like there. He knew he couldn’t move. He would just give himself to a count of three. One-two-it was so nice to be lying still. Did he have to move? Did he really have to move? He saw four fists pounding a windshield in slow motion unison. He shook his head and slid off the car, running back around it to grab the bicycle. He hoisted it onto his right shoulder and started walking between the cars.
It was always easier to cross streets than to walk along them. Zack had an easier time getting a quick arm out through a side window of a car than the windshield. Hoods and trunks formed better buffer zones than walking between cars. He’d lost too many friends in the early days learning how to be a pedestrian. Knowing that, should he walk across 690 or take the longer route on Midler? One look at the hill told him that he’d have to take the bridge and run the long gauntlet. He’d never be able to make it up the cliff on the far side of the highway, even if it was safer to go that way.
He shifted the bike to his left hand and put his ZED in the right. That bike wouldn’t make a suitable shield, but it was better than nothing. Zack wasn’t groaning, maybe on account of the weather, which might give him some element of surprise if he was fast. He made it to the bridge with only six contacts–three to his left, all of which just got handfuls of Chrome-Moly frame, and three swings of his machete took out three hands that were groping toward him in a rather impolite, eat your brains sort of way. On the bridge, the hands stopped their clawing. The zombies were still inanimate. This might even turn out to be easy. He looked to the left at the restaurant sitting at the corner of Burnet and Midler and started thinking about how much he missed Russian dressing. Would he ever have another Reuben? Oh yeah–it was a bridge. That was why the zombies were still frozen. Bridges froze first because the air under them was cooler. There were signs all over the place to remind him of that from when he’d drive in his car with the heater turned on
He felt it and heard the groan at the same moment. Something grabbed his right arm and made him drop his ZED. He couldn’t move fast enough to get it back. The mouth was headed straight for his hand. He couldn’t get his ZED. Without thinking, he swung the bicycle. The rim hit the ghoul right in the mouth. It kept on biting. He heard a gasp of air as the tire ruptured and the crack of bone as it feasted on aluminum rim. He picked up the ZED. and finished the job. Too bad he couldn’t have finished it with the bike. That would have been a story worth retelling. As it was, he had to keep on walking and get his mind off of corned beef.
The rain started to come down lightly as he strained up the hill. Months of malnutrition wore him into submission. Swerving to avoid a body in the road meant two more ninety degree turns with one going straight uphill, so he stopped swerving and went straight over a body. He forgot he wasn’t on his old low-framed bike and nearly flew again. He was able to connect the front tire with the neck, so at least he went over the body at its slimmest point. He was surprised by the sound, more like the crinkle of broken glass than the traditional crack of bone. Onward he went.
Was the rain melting the slow and making it easier? Was it freezing into a sleet? Was he gaining traction? Was he losing steam? He tried to keep track just to keep his mind concentrating on anything but the shivering. Why was he shaking so badly? He was exercising, and the temperature must have been 35 degrees. Soon it would be warm enough to hold a Winterfest in downtown Syracuse, which always used to take place in the middle of the February thaw. It was so embarrassing to have to import snow for the sculpture contest.
Hadn’t he passed that yellow house yet? Oh gods–there will still four houses to go. Just crest this hill and coast to James Street. You can do it. You can–he saw the movement from the front yard six houses up. It was down the hill from where he was, but they were both moving slowly. It hadn’t seen him yet, and if he sped up, he might make it. Just pedal and hope it doesn’t moan. Out here, in this still, cold air, that moan would carry for a mile. Push. Don’t. Push. Make. Push. A. Push. Frakkin’. Push. Noise. Push. I. Push. Will. Push. Make. Push. It. Push. Over. Push. This. Push. Hill.
He crested the hill as the zombie pointed at him and bayed. It sounded like a dog. He collapsed on the handlebars and pulled his feet off the pedals, heaving for breath. Was it a dog? Did he see a dog ahead? Had he heard anything at all? He could swear that there was a black shadow a hundred yards ahead of him, but every time he looked up, the wind tore at his eyes and forced his head back down again. He gave up trying to see.
The land leveled out as he approached the jammed-up traffic on the old GM Circle. He figured he should go straight across it rather than around the outside on the pavement. There was no traffic on the north side of the circle, and he flipped off the Z’s as they tried to grab him as he crossed 298-East. “Ha! I knew your mother!” he yelled at one sixty-year old in a magenta Chrysler Minivan. “I bashed her skull in too.” Then, he lifted an eyebrow and added, “Boo roo blue hoo Jew” and cracked up at his wit. He hadn’t laughed so hard in ages. He couldn’t wait to tell Raygun that one.
The laughing and the strain had made him feel warm again. He jumped off the bike and pulled off his parka, knotting it around his waist like he did in elementary school. Fifty feet later, he had removed his sweatshirt. He was still hot, so he decided to walk the bike rather than ride it. He was only a couple of miles from home and ought to be there in under an hour. Probably in time for some stew. He took off the long-sleeved shirt and dropped it nonchalantly in the snow. It was easier than washing it. He could come back for it tomorrow. If only he had a tent. He could really use a breather. Maybe just a break. Just for a minute.
He was warm in bed, kissing Lauren. They were naked. There were blankets and pillows. There was no place like home. He leaned forward to kiss her. He felt her hot breath on her face. Panting. A familiar long, pink tongue slobbered from his right cheek across his lips and nose to his left cheek and he smelled the faint aroma of old Alpo. It was clearly not Lauren’s. He heard her moan.
Some small part of his brain knocked tentatively at the door of his consciousness, like an old telegraph deliveryman. “Excuse me, sir? I have a message for you from your hypothalamus. Something weird may be going on here. You might want to look into that.”
He looked at the telegraph for a moment and thought it was good of his hypothalamus to let him know about the problem he was experiencing. Lauren beckoned alluringly from the other side of the bed. He decided he would think about opening his eyes, and against the strenuous opposition of half of his body, voted to open his left eye, just to look. A thirty-six degree raindrop landed right on his cornea. He closed his eye and decided to end debate. A motion to move his left arm up to rub the pain away was tabled and referred to committee. He adjourned for the evening to go home to his girlfriend.
Thirty-six degrees was zombie-slaying weather. There was something about the temperature and the density of water approaching a maximum, Celsius, and who-knows-what-else playing with it. Axe didn’t care much for the thermodynamics of it. He just wanted to connect with some skull. Banger was down, and Zack was going to pay for it.
And Zack did. The warm temperature had him up and around, but still moving slowly. Raygun had them moving toward the south again, toward New Court Street Avenue, which should take them straight down to where Banger had been. One squad headed toward Teall and the other went down Thompson. There was no other way across 690. Axe wasn’t from this part of town, and he didn’t care. All that mattered was swinging his blade. Every Z down was one less to have to deal with–“Spot! C’mon, Dog! Whatinhell are you doin’ layin’ down in a…” No way. No frakkin way. “Horse! Raygun! I found ‘im!”
And there he was, in his plaid boxers and a foot of snow next to a green tandem bicycle with a flat front tire. If they had cameras, this would have been one for the highlight reel. “Horse, you take him. Axe, you grab the bike. I’ll take point.” Horse went to toss Banger over a shoulder like a sack of potatoes back when potatoes came in sacks. “Horse, walk really carefully. As cold as he is, any jarring can cause cardiac arrest. Get him home alive and I’ll get you a day off.” The magic words meant they didn’t stop moving–slowly and carefully–until they were at the gate.
Banger felt cold again. He heard a voice. It sounded strangely like Krezner. “He’s not dead until he’s warm and dead. Axe, Horse, get under the covers with him. Yes, I’m serious. He needs heat. Now do it. Get the dog in there too.” What was Krezner doing here? Had something happened to Lauren?
A convulsive shudder ran down the length of Banger’s body.
He decided to open his eyes. There was Lauren with her arms wrapped around him. She looked beautiful even though she’d been crying. Maybe it was because she had been crying. He wanted to reassure her, to tell her what he felt. Instead, he could only muster the energy to whisper, “I’m sorry.”
She called, “Nurse!” and leaned closer. “It’s okay, baby. Don’t say anything. I’m here. Conserve your strength. You’ll be alright. Just be quiet. You’ll be okay.”
“I ruined your Christmas…”
“No, you’re here. That’s what matters.”
“I couldn’t find you anything. I looked everywhere.”
“It’s okay. Katie loves her new bike.”
“Merry Christmas, Baby.”
“Merry Christmas, Banger.”